How do horses communicate with humans?

Just as dogs can attract our attention to direct us to their empty food bowl, horses can also look to humans when they have a “problem,” as if to request our help. Rachel Malavasi and Ludwig Huber decided to find out more about “referential heterospecific communication” in domestic horses; that is, their capacity to communicate information about their environment. How do horses try to talk to us? To find out more read on.

This research was jointly led by a cognitive researcher at the Study Center for Ethical Equitation, Moncigoli Di Fivizzano, Italy, and a professor at the University of Veterinary Medicine of Vienna, Austria. The results were published in the review Animal Cognition in April 2016. The aim was to study the behavior of 14 horses in a specific environment; each horse was in a separate enclosure with a food bucket, containing apples, carrots or oats depending on individual preferences, situated just outside the horse’s reach. The owners were then asked to place themselves in one of four different experimental positions: either standing alone facing the horse outside the enclosure, behind the horse in the enclosure, walking around the fence, or with other people inside the enclosure.

In all of the experimental positions, R. Malavasi and L. Huber found that rate of gaze alternation was higher when the owner was facing the horse. The horses used indicative (pointing), and non-indicative (nods and shakes of the head) gestures to communicate. According to the researchers what was also interesting was how the horses: “demonstrated perseverance in their communication and elaborated it by switching from a visual to a tactile signal.? Indeed, they not only used eye contact but also gestures, for example by tapping their head against their owner, to encourage the owner to help them in their quest for food.

This study reveals how horses are capable of using different referential gestures to capture our attention in order to get help. That signifies that they are capable of voluntary communication with humans and according to R. Malavasi, “they are able to create mental strategies to evaluate human attentiveness, and to adapt their way of communicating accordingly.”

Finally, horse whispering might not be a legend after all….
Source: R. Malavasi et L. Huber, Evidence of heterospecific referential communication from domestic horses (Equus caballus) to humans, in Animal Cognition, April 2016.

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